Judge dismisses smokersâ€™ claims to state tobacco money
A federal judge in Reno has dismissed a lawsuit that would have paid up to 2,400 Nevada smokers and their families part of the stateâ€™s $1.2 billion settlement with tobacco companies, officials said Thursday.
The lawsuit claimed the state has received more money than it actually paid for the care of smokers with tobacco-related illnesses, which the families said entitles them to a share of that money.
But U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben said in the decision made public Thursday that the state has not received any surplus money. Also, the state cannot be sued for money damages unless Congress authorizes it or the state agrees to be sued, McKibben said.
'This decision confirms the stateâ€™s right to the tobacco settlement proceeds,' Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they will challenge McKibbenâ€™s decision.
'Iâ€™m very disappointed,' said Shirley Rickerts, 67,
whose husband Dave died in a nursing home in October 1999 following what she claimed were tobacco-related illnesses.
In 1998, Nevada and 45 other states settled their suit when tobacco manufacturers agreed to pay $206 billion to the states over 25 years. The money was to compensate states for what they had paid for care of people who had tobacco-related illnesses who had no other insurance. Nevada has so far received $16 million of its share, McKibben said.
Part of the money has been used to pay for tobacco-related health costs, and some has gone to such programs as college scholarships and public television.
The lawsuit also claimed the state was improperly collecting reimbursement money from the tobacco companies and then placing liens against the familiesâ€™ homes. That meant the state was trying to collect for the same bills twice, the suit contended.
McKibben did not address the validity of that claim.
'The irony of this case is that the state has or is going to receive over time $1.2 billion, has been more than compensated for what it paid out, and yet is asserting a lien for $74,000 against a poor widow,' said Pat Cashill, a lawyer representing the victims and their families. 'That means the state is being compensated more than twice, or maybe three or four times, for the same illness.'
It would have been up to each individual to decide what to do with any money they would have obtained in the suit, Cashill said.
Rickerts and other plaintiffs claimed tobacco use caused the illnesses and deaths and the state wrongly decided to use some of the money for college scholarships, public television and health care but not for reimbursement of the people directly affected by smokingâ€™s ill effects.
McKibben did not address those contentions because they were not alleged in the lawsuit, said John Albrecht, senior deputy attorney general.
McKibben, while dismissing the suit, said the Medicaid recipients do have other recourse â€” they can sue the tobacco companies for other damages.
Rickerts said the state filed a lien for $74,000 against her home for the cost of her husbandâ€™s care, even though it had received millions of dollars from tobacco companies.
'Itâ€™s a very difficult thing for anyone to go through to begin with, to see someone you love suffer so badly, but what are you going to do?'
She said her husband had high blood pressure and suffered a stroke due to smoking before he eventually died of heart failure.
Reno lawyer Henry W. Cavallera, one of the lawyers who sought to have the Reno suit made a class action, said he was not surprised at McKibbenâ€™s ruling because federal judges elsewhere in the country have made similar decisions.
Cavallera said a ruling similar to McKibbenâ€™s was made in Hawaii in December. The Reno case and the Hawaiian case could be heard by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals in San Francisco at the same time, he said.
Similar cases and rulings in Georgia, Kentucky,
Tennessee, Colorado and West Virginia also are on appeal, he said.
If those appeals result in differing rulings, the cases would likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.